More than 20 years ago I applied to read law at Cambridge. I went to a good state school, but didn’t go to any preparation classes. There were some, but I can’t remember now whether I didn’t want to go, failed to sign up for them, or simply wasn’t selected to attend. I remember the day I went for the interview though. I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the most general understanding that there would be an interview and tests. I’d picked the college mainly because it looked nice from the brochures I’d found in the school library. I didn’t really know how else to pick a college to apply for, surely all Cambridge colleges are the same and equally academic I thought?
On the day of the interview, after a pleasant tour round the grounds I did a legal aptitude test. I remember thinking it was odd, and not really understanding what was expected of me. I was used to being asked about things I already knew or at least knew something about and it seemed vaguely daft to be asked legal questions when I didn’t have any legal knowledge. Surely that was what I was going to University to study? The interview was odd too, one person, mid to late 50s, male, in what looked like his office but sitting in two armchairs (which felt very odd). He didn’t seem to be making notes, and the questions seemed very general. Things like why do you want to study here, and what do you want to do with your life. I had a general sense that there were some rules, some expectations of what to say, but I didn’t know what they were. So I just tried to be honest, but even at 18 I understood that he didn’t want to hear that I applied to the college because it looked nice in the brochure, which was pretty much my sum total knowledge not only of the college but also Cambridge.
He asked me about work experience, I’d done a week in chambers and a week in a solicitors office, and it turned out the barrister I’d been with had been to the college, and was clearly a favourite of his, he was clearly proud when he recited that the barrister had been editor of some sort of legal paper, and written some impressive things. At this point I had some understanding that I’d stumbled on something potentially useful, but in the moment I just didn’t really have the experience to know how to even begin to capitalise on this.
I remember waiting for the envelope to arrive, and the classic moment when it dropped onto the mat. I grabbed it from my Mum and ran into the lounge to open it in private, my whole future either way was going to be changed by what was in the envelope.
I didn’t get in.
Although they did put me into some sort of clearing pool which seemed a little odd. It kind of sounded like they didn’t have space for me but some other college might. It seemed unlikely that any other college had been so underwhelmed with applicants that they would need to go to some sort of clearing pool, so I just assumed it was some sort of lame way of saying that I was almost good enough.
My parents were really good about it, they’ve always loved me no matter what, and didn’t see Cambridge as the be all and end all of life. In fact in hindsight they probably weren’t that bothered where I went as long as I learnt and was happy.
It hurt though. Visiting Cambridge on day trips hurt, I felt like I had been rejected, that I wasn’t good enough.
Maybe I wasn’t good enough, I did a law degree but didn’t excel in legal academia and despite my early ambitions to become a barrister, ended up taking another path. But that other path, HR and psychology have led me to ask different questions about the selection process I went through. How many of the other students being interviewed and tested that day had little idea of what was expected? How many had been coached, or at least prepared for the interview and test? How many were from the state system and how many from public schools? With psychometric tests, the majority are difficult to improve on with practice, apart from an initial 5 – 10 % improvement from being clear what the test is all about, which includes elements of reducing stress levels from the unknown. But even 5% might make a big difference – I’ll never know because I didn’t get the scores. And then there is the interview, humans are inherently biased, and one person asking and marking general open ended questions and not making any notes, probably without any in depth recruitment training, is about as biased as it gets.
But this was 20 years ago, and psychology also tells us that personal memory is not as accurate as we sometimes feel. Maybe I have warped memories of that day? The problem with challenging this kind of thing is that it sounds like sour grapes. If there is obvious discrimination then it is easier to point out, but subtle buried bias is much harder to test. We know that less state kids go to Oxbridge, but the more interesting question is why? Except from the odd person, I strongly doubt it is overt bias, I don’t think the academics or systems conciously prefer public school kids. In fact quite the opposite, I believe that many are working really hard to improve the percentages of state school children who apply and are accepted. But it comes down to the challenge of testing ability and potential when children have been exposed to very different opportunities and learning.
It is impossible to undertake a double blind experiment to identify what aspects of a young person’s ability are innate and what are due to the opportunities life has offered them, but without that how can we possibly know whether a state school kid is just not good enough to go to Cambridge, or simply doesn’t know enough about how to behave, what to say, and what the rules are, to compete with public school kids….
We may be well on our way (but not there yet) in getting rid of outright discrimination in society generally, but it is far harder to even the playing field of the inherent contextual, circumstantial and cumalitive privilege that being born in one family as opposed to another still bring.
Personally I wonder whether not getting into Cambridge gave me a different kind of gift, to realise that I could like myself even when I failed, that there were many ways to achieve success and happiness in life, and that ultimately whether I did or didn’t go to Cambridge, probably wasn’t as momentous as it felt that day I held the envelope. I wonder in the right circumstances and with time can sour grapes become a great vintage?